Hello again and welcome to my latest little escapade on the blog which I do assure you will be a lot shorter than the last two for which there are several reasons and, before you quite understandably wonder what nonsense I am going to come out with to explain such a paucity of content for another three month trip, please read on.
Obviously the featured image above is an absolute giveaway in that it clearly shows a Sri Lankan flag, which I think is a great flag, I love the layout, so it should be obvious where I am heading. Yes, I was on my way back to that wonderful country which I had enjoyed to an extent I had found then, and still do, quite remarkable.
It is no secret at all from this blog and previous sites I have contributed to that South and Southeast Asia are “home” for me in a travel sense. This is just my place somehow and I mentioned in a previous post here that I have probably spent getting on for three years of my life there. OK, given how very old I am that is not a great percentage but I am pleased with it.
I have done a ridiculously long series of posts about my 2014 three month trip there which I know many of you have read (thanks again) but this trip was going to be a whole lot different and the writing will hopefully reflect that.
I had previously enjoyed a brilliant holiday there, if three months can even be deemed a holiday, it is more like an expedition. I had absolutely loved the place, mostly due to the sterling efforts of my very dear friend Treshi (not her real name to protect her online identity), who I had met for a very posh “high tea” in one of the top hotels in Colombo, which you can read about here. It was a brilliant afternoon and we had got on so well.
Treshi had also helped me with hotel suggestions, transport information and all sorts of things. She worked in the travel industry before the virus killed that and so knew what she was talking about. She is going to feature largely in this short series.
I am not entirely ignorant to the ways of the world and know the dangers of meeting people you have met online but we were both adults (me rather much more so than her, she is a lot younger than me!) and, with appropriate safeguards in place, we had enjoyed a superb afternoon out. We got on like the proverbial house on fire although I have never completely understood that comment. Is burning your home down such a good idea?
Fast forward now two years to 2016 and I really wanted to visit Sri Lanka again, I had enjoyed it so much and there was so much I still wanted to see. We were in contact online all the time, I told her I was coming and asking for accommodation suggestions. Was the Sai Sea City still good (I had enjoyed it before but places change) or could she suggest somewhere else and this is where it gets not only marginally unbelievable but so utterly brilliant and ultimately gave me two of the best travel experiences I have ever had.
Treshi told me I was not to consider staying in a hotel but I had to come and stay at her flat (apartment) in a little village called Mattegoda, near Kottawa, which is about ten or twelve miles Southeast of Colombo central. What? Are you joking? Come and stay in your home? It seemed like utter madness not to mention the greatest act of kindness but I knew that, when such things were still possible in the world, that she was a “couchsurfing” host and so was used to random people crashing on her sofa or on the floor in my case as the sofa is not long enough for my lengthy frame.
OK, that sounds fine, I’ll have a night or maybe two there and then hit the road. I had checked where she lived and knew I could get to Fort (the main train station in Sri Lanka) on the bus easily enough or I could pick up a ‘bus South from Kottawa for the rest of my trip, nice job.
There was then only one airline flying direct from London to Colombo (who knows what is happening in light of the Chinese virus?), which is Air Sri Lanka, the national carrier and so I went for that as it shaves an hour or two from going through a Middle Eastern hub like Doha or Dubai. Thirteen hours or thereabouts and the prices are not dissimilar. It was an overnight flight which supposedly gives you a chance to wake up refreshed at your destination but if you are 6’5″ in “cattle class” that concept is a non -starter. Apologies for the image but on a night flight flash does not work on an airport window.
I like to “go native” when I fly and don’t even think about abusing me online for that comment, it is not in the least offensive but I have seen professional moaners complaining about it before.
What I mean is that I eat the food of the destination country as a matter of course on a flight, I can get a chicken breast in tomato sauce with allegedly sauteed potatoes anywhere. I just like to get into the mood, as it were, and I managed a couple of excellent curries on the flight although that is not so surprising as the area round Heathrow airport has a large Sri Lankan community so a genuine curry shouldn’t have been off the radar and it wasn’t, for “cattle class” airline food it was excellent.
I made Bandarainaike Airport (CMB) which isn’t actually too bad apart from the total lack of refreshment facitilties in arrivals and the fact that most of the duty-free there seems to consist of washing machines, fridges and TV’s, a concept I still don’t understand and with no chance to buy cigarettes as importation of tobacco into SL is illegal for some obscure reason (you can still bring the usual quotas of alcohol and I was bringing some for Treshi), it is a bit odd. A country as bankrupt as SL should surely try to make a few £££ this way. Ban importation of cigarettes and then sell them in arrivals!
After one whole visit to Sri Lanka, I perhaps rashly considered myself an expert on airport travel onward and I jumped the ‘bus , got into Pettah / Fort and made my way again, it was all going well. Naturally I stopped off in the Colonial Hotel for a quick one or three before proceeding and, in the two years since my previous visit, absolutely nothing had changed, I was so happy.
I don’t know if any of my much-appreciated readers know the feeling. It is when you return to somewhere you love, you know how not to get ripped off at the airport, you know where to go, you know a decent place for a beer, you just feel at home. I am probably not explaining this very well but when I hit the ‘bus stop I could not have been happier, even if you had injected me with drugs I have never used! It really was that good.
Because of my lack of notes I am trying to guess what happened next as there are two very different scenarios which happened a year after the other (there is another series waiting to happen!). One is my getting to Kottawa and meeting Treshi outside a particular bank in the middle of town, which sounds more likely. The other involves me being utterly exhausted after many hours travelling and ending up asleep on her doorstep until she got home from work as her son was at College! They both happened, I am not just sure in which order.
It was actually quite amusing to dismiss the hovering taxi drivers as I stood at the 38 bus stop on Olcott Mawatha in Colombo telling them I knew exactly where I was going, especially as most of them had probably never even heard of Kottowa or Mattegoda nor could find them with two hands and a map. The bus drivers know!
Another option is that she had given me precise instructions to her home if this was this year!). I knew what road junction (actually a 90 degree bend in the road) to go for and what shop front to walk up to the top floor above. I genuinely cannot remember how it went but both are vaguely amusing stories, my memory is getting so bad.
Whichever way round it happened I am not terribly bothered. I was back in a place I loved and this time it was going to be so, so different. I was just exhausted and wanted a kip.
I am well aware of the iea of “homestays” and love them as a concept as they stimulate local economies, give a much better sense of the place you are staying (as much as I had loved the hotels I had stayed in before) but this was something a little bit different.
I would like to think that Treshi and I were friends by that point, despite having previously met only once for a XXXX fancy afternoon tea and she was inviting me to stay in her home, that was just a bit special and it is difficult to put into words here. This single Mum was going to let a hooligan like me stay in her house, a female living with only her teenage son, what was she thinking of?
The upshot of this whole philosophic wondering was that I ended up staying in Treshi’s and doing a small proportion of the travelling I had intended to doon this trip. Did I regret that? Never, not as long as I live. It is a matter of thinking about what you want from travelling (if we are ever allowed to again and Sri Lanka is completely out of bounds as I write this) but that is another story.
Yes, there will be a bit of “travelling” later in this series but for now I was staying in the home of a friend, and there will be much more of that later, but you cannot begin to believe what a difference there is between a commercial homestay, wonderful as they are, and just beng offered hospitality in someone’s home. It is a whole different thing.
Getting to know local ‘bus conductors, the local halal chicken merchant, the market traders, the local curry shop owner, the bar manager (more of him shortly) in the nearest town, these are all things of such joy you cannot believe.
When I walked in the door (however it actually happened) and having been shouted at to remove my footwear (barefoot is standard in Treshi’s) I just knew I was where I was meant to be. I know that sounds soppy and pretentious although it is not meant to be and it is hard to define but I felt somehow it was just right and I was not to be proved wrong.
So there I was, back in my beloved Sri Lanka again, not looking at the four corporate walls of a hotel room (pleasant as SL hotel rooms are) and I was ready to go. OK, I needed a bit of a lie down first but I’d be OK in the morning. Go on, I dare you, tell me I was wrong.
If you want to see what happened in the morning then stay tuned and spread the word.